2019 Federal Election – Week 5: Strategic Voting

It should come as no surprise in an election where the parties have refused to engage on the actual issues that they are all now asking for your strategic vote against someone else rather than making their own case for support.

Strategic voting is really hard to do in Canada. When you cast a strategic vote, you usually base it on national polling numbers that have little to do with the reality on the ground in your own riding. You’re also betting you have a good handle on the voting intentions of the 100,000 or so other voters in your community. And you’re assuming that everyone else trying to vote strategically won’t create a wave that ends up going in a much different direction than anyone planned.

There are many good-faith arguments for strategic voting, but most of what you see online is being spun by political operatives and partisan supporters with little regard for truth or good intentions. Their goal is simply to elect their candidate, leader, and party – at all costs.

Blue Door vs. Red Door

In 2011, Michael Ignatieff kicked off his election pitch to voters by saying they only had two choices – a blue door or a red door. He argued that the only parties likely to form government were the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, or the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff. But what politicos forget (despite the province of Quebec proving it every single election) is that you can’t tell a voter what their options are. They will show you at the ballot box just how wrong you are. And in 2011 (led by Quebec), they did.

Partisans from both NDP and Liberal circles use the 2011 election, and the 2018 Ontario Election that resulted in ‘Premier’ Ford, as examples of strategic voting gone wrong as a result of partisan selfishness. NDP supporters tend to argue that in both cases we could have had a progressive government if Liberals had just fallen in line and voted NDP. Liberal supporters point out that in both cases not a single NDP member was elected by taking over a previously conservative seat.

Both parties have made the ‘lend me your vote’ argument and both have been angered when many voters refuse to switch after this ask has been made. The request ignores the fact that the biggest partisans are unlikely to ever switch (and that’s the case in both parties) and that many supporters of both parties do not necessarily swing the same way during close elections. There are many in both parties who actually switch to conservatives when presented with the likely election of a candidate from the opposing ‘progressive’ party.

Failed Democratic Reform

One big thing being talked about in all this progressive infighting is the failure of the Trudeau Liberals to introduce electoral reform after stating that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under First-Past-the-Post. I’ve never been a fan of proportional representation, which many of the activists wanted, because I believe local representation matters and list-based election of a politician is unlikely to hold them to account.

One argument trotted out in favour of PR is that it improves voter turnout. Countries like New Zealand and Germany are cited against Canada as having higher turnout. But turnout in these countries in more recent elections versus those of decades past show that turnout is actually down around the world, and, actually declining faster in PR-based countries.

My own view is that the combative nature of our politics and growing disinterest or disillusionment in our electorate is why people are not rushing to the polls anywhere around the world. And the solution may not require a constitutional answer – it may be possible to address these problems with a simple design change to the ballot.

Approval voting – a system where you mark an X or check mark next to any candidate you approve of and leave blank the box next to any candidate you don’t approve of – encourages campaigns to try to attract more voters from other sides. It also has the benefit of being simple to tally (the candidate with the most votes wins) and provides clear understanding to voters of how the vote they cast helped reach the final result.

Most candidates who win under this model are supported by a majority of local voters and yet the campaign often remains competitive and not a forgone conclusion, two elements voters routinely say they wish were present in more elections. You still have the power to hire and fire your local representative and you don’t need to open up the constitution to put it in place.

We should continue to have a conversation about democratic reform after this election, however my advice to any government pursuing it is that they first ask a clear question about whether Canadians want reform and then ask a clear question on what that reform should look like. I think there is greater appetite for reform than we saw in votes taken in some provinces but the failure to separate the question of reform from the question of what kind of reform undermined those debates.

How to Vote

Given we have the voting system we have right now, it’s fairly useless to talk about how great it would be if we had a different one right now. Voters have to make a choice in the system that we have right now.

I won’t tell anyone who to vote for. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to weigh our options and make our decision based on what choice we think has the best shot of creating the Canada we want to live in. In 2018, I voted for my local Liberal candidate because I knew her, was deeply impressed by her, and thought she would do a great job. I thought she might be one of only a handful of Liberals to win in that election. And given my riding votes overwhelmingly Liberal, she was also my best shot at preventing a conservative being elected as my new MPP. In the end the vote did split but the NDP won. I can live with that.

I wasn’t always so sure who I might vote for in this federal election. I had worked on the housing file in Ontario and was unimpressed with the federal Liberal response on that file and the health care file for a long time (they ended up stepping up on the former). I thought the government was too centrist for my liking and that it was taking an incrementalist approach to nearly every crucial issue facing our country.

But given how close this election is, and given the type of person Andrew Scheer has proven himself to be, I was also reminded of the day I spent in 2016 in front of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia while the roll call of Hillary Clinton’s nomination was broadcast live from the lawn.

As they called out numbers state by state, a Bernie Sanders supporter walked up and down the street shouting that she would now vote for Donald Trump in the general election. Others ended up joining her at the polls while still others, who couldn’t stomach another Clinton, chose a third-party candidate on Election Day.

No matter what, my overarching values are more important to me than the specifics of how to reach them or the party that will deliver on them. It’s why I decided I couldn’t be a Jill Stein type of voter and needed to really weigh the best option in my riding and across the country for a more progressive Canada.

That’s the choice facing all progressive voters and it will lead to different conclusions in ridings throughout Canada. So as you’re making your own choice, tune out the partisan voices, learn about the party platforms, take a look at past results in your riding, and check out any available information you have about how things might turn out locally. Some progressives are furiously checking sites like http://338canada.com/ and https://votewell.ca/ to help inform their choice.

Just remember, no matter how you vote, cast your ballot in a way that you can feel good about your choice no matter what the outcome ends up being. Four years is a long time to live with regret.

2019 Federal Election – Week 4: Political Tribalism

Earlier this year I painted all but one room of my apartment over five or so days. It seemed to go by in an instant because I listened to some podcasts and some audiobooks.

One of those podcasts made a sociological argument that human beings are conditioned to be unable to cooperate in groups larger than 50 or so people. The reason being that in hunter-gatherer times, that was more or less the maximum amount of people that could work together and be fed by the fruits of the collective at a given time. The argument went on further to say that we’ve never grown out of this ‘tribal’ mindset and that our modern-day squabbles on twitter and elsewhere reflect this hardwiring.

Whether this is true or not, I think all of us watching this election certainly feel like it could be. The polls are so frozen that journalists are frantically tweeting slight changes in numbers as if they aren’t still within the margin of error (and therefore no real indication of anything).

Meanwhile, partisans from all parties continue dunking on each other and each other’s leaders as if any of the insults they trade are giving Canadians reason to vote for them. We’ve long been warned about what would happen when the social media generation ran for office. The result is a campaign driven entirely by dueling war-rooms whose only goal is to suppress the other side’s votes. Prospective first-time voters have little reason to show up and mark an X.

So, how did we get here?

When the Loudest Voice Wins

The first audiobook I played during the week I spent painting was Political Tribes by Amy Chua. The most striking part of the book focused on why the Americans lost the Vietnam war so badly despite having some of the ‘smartest brains in America’ making decisions about the war effort.

Chua maintained that despite their individual and collective brilliance, none of them understood the tribal loyalties in place on the ground. They presumed the people they were supposedly liberating would cheer their arrival. They were simply wrong.

But how do groups become so uniform in the first place? The simple answer is that once in-group values are set, they are very hard to break. And that’s because the loudest voices keep anyone wavering in line. In my time in politics I’ve seen this first hand but it is not exclusive to political parties.

Within the political discussion about our energy future, the oil and gas sector has been very good at sticking to the theme that expansion is the only answer and any attempt to diversify or plan for the day when the market dries up is strictly prohibited. None of those arguments are about the workers, they are about the CEOs and shareholders.

The workers themselves aren’t so much attached to their sector as they are to getting a cheque that allows them to put food on the table. But in order to keep putting that food on the table for the time being, they fall into line by not biting the hand that is currently feeding them. It’s a reasonable response to a tough situation. And they aren’t alone in being boxed in by their tribe.

Last week I attended the Catholic Vote Debate in Toronto that was broadcast across Canada. Here again is a group that is kept in line by its loudest voices. I grew up in a social-justice parish and know countless Catholics who recognize if Jesus was a voter in this election his top issue would not be abortion.

And yet in the crowd of 1200, a few loud voices pretended the Conservatives would reopen the abortion debate simply because Garnett Genuis, MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, said Andrew Scheer would allow MPs to bring Private Member’s Bills to the floor of Parliament.

What he wouldn’t tell them was that, for the vote to move forward, the government of the day (regardless of party) would have to send it to committee. Scheer has committed to not doing so. Whether the commitment is real or not, Genuis knew how to pander to the group – by going through the loudest voices in the room.

His strategy was amplified by the poor moderating job done by Don Newman who proclaimed, as the neutral moderator, that the voting decisions of those in the room would be exclusively decided by the topic of abortion.

The same loud voices that both men amplified booed a candidate for making an Indigenous land acknowledgement, hissed at the far-right being called out, laughed at any mention of climate change, and (like toddlers) used flashing lights and loud coughing to disrupt Liberal, NDP, and Green candidates while they spoke.

These voices didn’t speak for all in the room but they did egg each other on to ignore the values they supposedly hold, namely the Golden Rule. When groups close ranks like this, there is no room for free-thought or debate. The only action left is to follow the mob. And that’s what we’re seeing across our political system as a whole.

Going Against the Grain

The last audiobook I listened to while painting was The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke about Bobby Kennedy’s 82 day campaign for the presidency before his assassination. Read side by side with Chua’s book, it provided interesting insight into what happens when the most famous member of a political tribe sets out firmly against the tribe’s popular expression of its own identity.

Throughout his campaign, Kennedy challenged sacred cows and disappointed Democrats who assumed he’d share their biases. When he visited college campuses he would tell the (largely white) students they should not be receiving education-based deferments from the Vietnam War just because they could afford college unlike their poorer (largely of colour) fellow citizens. He toured Republican strongholds like South Dakota when other Democrats wouldn’t bother and visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation instead of hobnobbing with local democrats ahead of a primary.

We seldom see this in modern politics. Mostly we see more of the same tribalism that demands supporters defend their leaders even when they know they are wrong. Sometimes people take this so far that they won’t call out racism, sexism, or homophobia and other transgressions in their own ranks. When a rabid response is the norm, few are willing to stick their necks out for fear of damaging the brand and, more importantly, of being cast out of the group. But our system is stronger when more people do.

You only have to look at the Republican Party in America right now to see what putting party before people looks like in practice. It isn’t pretty and we aren’t as far off as we’d like to hope.

In his Capetown address (much better known for a different line), Bobby Kennedy provided some important advice for all of us during these tribal times:

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change.  – Bobby Kennedy, 1966

What to Do Now

The times we live in seem incredibly bleak and are reflected by a common saying in politics that voting is about choosing the best of bad options. Absent a debate on some truly big ideas, it certainly feels that way.

But voting in this campaign, as always, is an act of hope with an outcome that has yet to be written. In contrast, we already know the outcome of not voting: more of the same. As Bobby Kennedy went on to say in the same speech:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.

Drawing change from this election will be painful. But it is crucial for our future that we try. And the only way to do that is to vote.